Opinion: Could we be on the verge of seeing the first superstar bartender?

Michael Butt

18 January 2016

In 1979 football player Trevor Francis was sold to Nottingham Forest for £1,000,000. Manchester City have just offered Lionel Messi £800,000 a week.

In 2001 I was fortunate to win a national award from a then aspiring magazine. At the prize-giving ceremony I was followed onto the stage by the winner of the ‘best chef’ award. He received the same plastic trophy as I did, and at the time I thought that our aspirations and prospects in the fledgling industry of modern hospitality were similar.

His name was Jamie Oliver.

Now one of the world’s most recognised faces, he, along with the cohort of chefs that have achieved this level of fame – Blumenthal, Ramsay, Roux and even John Torode – are second only to sportsmen and women in terms of levels of exposure. No doubt walking down the street avoiding a succession of selfies would get pretty tiring, but I imagine that counting the large piles of money would be quite therapeutic.

Fifteen years after this career-defining moment (I am sure that Jamie keeps his perspex pillar in pride of place to this day), is it time for someone to break out from behind the bar, to become famous enough to be recognised (if not mobbed) in the street?

Just like the meteoric rise of a football player’s ‘worth’, for a bartender to become a superstar, two crucial things are required: money and TV.

A fast bartender can make 100 cocktails an hour, 24,000 per year, and depending on the price of a drink, between £100,000 and £200,000 profit for the house. A bartender’s worth in this service situation can vary in two areas. First, the difference in cocktails per hour served above or below the mean, and secondly the number of extra drinks that are served solely due to the bartender’s presence – their following. Unfortunately, even excelling in both areas has a ceiling of change in the bottom line.

Cracks are now starting to appear in the ceiling, however.

If having an award-winning bar as the centerpiece of a hotel has a significant impact on occupancy rate, then the value of the bartender can be increased far in excess of their basic financial contribution of making drinks.

The idea of an executive bartender managing cocktail design and sales has been taken up across all levels of casual dining, the hotel sector and event companies. These internal stars are being PRed ever more effectively, with external marketing and on social media.

People will start to understand the worth of a good bar team and pay them accordingly

As each year group hits the legal drinking age, the expansion of a YouTube-based audience interested in making drinks increases. Cocktail making is perfectly suited to this shorter visual format, and there’s burgeoning support from various people, such as that Jamie Oliver fellow.

E-readers are on the wane, whilst books have enjoyed increases in both ease of production and print quality. Cocktail books are great coffee-table fodder, make fantastic presents, and are proving increasingly useful as home consumers begin to be more confident with cocktail construction. Unfortunately you don’t get royalties from people recreating your drinks, but the correlation between great recipes and book sales is strong.

Tipping any particular one of the strong contenders to achieve superstar bartender status would be difficult, as it will have to be a perfect storm of factors to generate enough momentum, but I really hope someone makes it.

Not only will blazing the trail make it easier for the next; perhaps, like the Premier League, people will start to understand the worth of a good bar team and pay them accordingly.

Not all footballers are Messi, but all of their wages have increased due to his presence and his repainting of the lines in the ballpark of worth. And as a bartending Tony Adams I would like that.

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